Weird things happen when you pray. I’ve never been the most disciplined pray-er. I don’t usually set aside the same hour each day to pray, sitting down with my coffee, Bible, and devotional, or journaling my prayers. For me, prayer tends to be more sporadic. Throughout the day, when it occurs to me to say something to God, I just say it. I don’t save it up for the right time or place. I just kind of spit it out as it comes to me, whether I’m in the car at a red light, or working out, or lying down to sleep. But I know that weird things happen when you pray. Because you think your life is headed one way, and then you start praying, and suddenly, you are selling your house in Seattle, moving across the country, and following a call to Missouri.
Jesus is more disciplined in his prayer life than I am. But his kind of prayer gives me courage and makes me feel like maybe I do okay with my kind of prayer. Especially in the book of Luke. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus is found praying, but it’s always in the middle of other things. He doesn’t take breaks from his ministry to pray, or maybe his ministry doesn’t take breaks for him to pray. His ministry follows him into his prayer, and when he prays, weird things certainly happen.
After he was baptized, he went to pray, and the heavens opened up and a voice from heaven came and said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
Then Jesus heads off into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer,and the devil follows him,and tempts him three times.
All during his public ministry, as he wanders around Galilee, he takes breaks and heads off to deserted places to pray. Sometimes the crowds follow him, and he continues healing in that deserted place. Sometimes his prayer leads him to name the twelve apostles. Sometimes his prayer leads into teaching. Sometimes he withdraws privately, and winds up feeding 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. And then there’s today’s reading.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountaintop to pray. And suddenly he is transfigured, so that his face changes and his clothes are dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses are standing there talking to him about his departure, his death in Jerusalem. Weird things happen when you pray.
But what really strikes me about this incident is that, though it is remarkable by itself, everything about it points elsewhere.
Jesus’ face changes, and it points us back to Moses, whose face changed after he saw the face of God.
Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, and that points us to the images of angels standing at the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection.
And of course, Moses and Elijah point us toward the law and the prophets.
And Peter and his companions were there, but they were weighed down with sleep, which points us to another time when they can’t stay awake while Jesus praysin the Garden of Gethsemane.
And then the cloud comes and overshadows them and a voice points us back to Jesus’ baptism, saying almost exactly the same words again, but this time the disciples hear them, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”
It’s like this story is pointing out from the top of the mountain towards every other story – it points us back to the beginning of Epiphany and forward to the end of Lent, wrapping all of the story of the law and prophets and baptism and ministry and the death and the resurrection, all into this one moment of dazzling light and voices from the clouds.
No wonder Peter wants to stay there, to hold onto that moment. No wonder he wants to build a tent and hang out there on the mountaintop. When it all comes together like that, you want to grab it and cling to it. If you let it go for even a moment, it starts to fade. Like a moment of clarity that comes to you just before you fall asleep, and you think to yourself, “I’ll remember that in the morning,” but then you wake up and it’s gone, or it’s muddled, and that moment of clarity is lost. If only you had built a dwelling there, staked that out as yours, maybe you could nail it down and you could bend it and shape it to your will, and using it, you could change everything.
But that’s not the nature of prayer, is it? You don’t get to nail it down. You don’t get to use it, to bend it to your own will. You don’t get to change everything through prayer. That’s not the deal.
Instead, prayer changes you, bends you, shapes you.
Moments of prayer don’t point back to themselves, they don’t provide us with self-congratulatory hours of solitude to make us feel like we’ve finally gotten it right. Instead they point at everything but themselves, they shine outward into the world, into the past and the future and the ministry and the crowds, they illuminate us and change our faces so that we are ready to head back down the mountain and meet the crowds.
Moments of prayer prepare us for the road ahead, and they help us to understand the road behind.
Prayer, whether it is done in a disciplined way, with a journal and a Bible, and an hour each morning before sunup; or whether it is done catch-as-catch-can, as the ambulance screams by, or as the kid is tumbling down the stairs, or as the sunset catches your breath; prayer transfigures us, changes us, and then sends us.
Sends us to meet the man whose son is sick, and he just wants someone to help.
Prepares us to meet the betrayal of our Messiah.
Turns our faces toward Jerusalem, toward the long, slow season of Lent,and the weeks of carrying a cross, and the exhilaration of Palm Sunday and the despair of Good Friday.
Peter doesn’t want to come down the mountain, because maybe he senses all that awaits him down there, even his own denials that will come.
And into all that, comes God’s response to our prayer, God’s response that will carry us through it all. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”
Listen to him.
It is that easy. And that difficult.
It is that clear. And that muddled.
Through all of this, through all the trials and troubles of life, you are not alone. You are standing in the presence of God’s own Son, God’s own Chosen. And he is speaking to you. He is walking with you. He is coming along on the journey, through the darkest days, and through the joyous celebrations. And he is speaking words of love and of comfort and of new life along the way, leading us on through the days of Lent and towards resurrection. Listen to him!